Elis have helping city youths down to a science

Stacks of problem sets and arduous treks up Science Hill are recurring themes in the lives of science majors at Yale. But a growing number of these undergraduates are adding another aspect to their routine, taking their scientific knowledge out of the ivory tower and into community classrooms.

The community service groups DEMOS and SMArT, as well as the Science Saturdays program, serve as vehicles for raising awareness of scientific topics. The groups complement each other and reach a wide spectrum of New Haven students with their unique styles of presentation.

DEMOS, which focuses on elementary school students, performed activities and experiments in 30 classrooms at eight area schools last year, sending two or three Yale students to each class for an hour each week. In the fall, the group plans Sciquest, a showcase for experiments that also offers students a chance to explore a star lab. DEMOS, which was founded in 1987, also participates in Communiversity Day in the spring.

The programs the group runs are largely designed to fit with third- through fifth-grade curriculums, the range with which the group most often works, co-director Argenta Price ’06 said. The group’s regular repertoire has included making slime, ice cream and volcanoes with the students, she said.

The program’s reception has been overwhelmingly positive, Price said.

“The goal is to excite students about science and teach them that science can be fun and acceptable, and to foster learning and curiosity in the world,” she said. “The kids definitely love us. The teachers keep wanting us to come back.”

SMArT, which stands for Science and Math Achiever Teams, pairs Yale’s student scientists with a teenager from one of three local middle schools. These schoolchildren apply to participate in the program, and SMArT director Laurel Peterson ’06 said the organization attempts to match the middle schoolers with an undergraduate according to their particular scientific interest and personality. The program allows the middle school student to design and carry out a basic science research project.

Recent projects have included building a mousetrap car, growing crystals, flying paper airplanes and making volcanoes. The projects are shown at an exposition upon completion in December. In the past, the presentations were made at the schools, but SMArT co-director Anu Phadke ’07 said this year’s showing may be held at Yale.

Peterson said the volunteers and school children benefit from interaction, as the undergraduate serves not only as a guide in science but in life.

“It gives them an opportunity to do things in science that they wouldn’t have a chance to do otherwise,” she said. “We are about the mentoring side as well as the science.”

New Haven students appreciate the individual attention of the volunteers, said Joyce Andrews, instructional coach at the Troup Magnet Academy of Sciences on Edgewood. Since the students select their own project topic, they sometimes get a chance to work on something that is not necessarily related to the curriculum, she said.

“The students like the one-on-one help. They love the special attention,” she said. “They like having something to do after school other than watch television.”

Professors are also getting involved in the community through Science Saturdays, founded last spring by mechanical engineering professor Ainissa Ramirez. This lecture series brings Yale professors from diverse scientific disciplines to speak with members of the New Haven community on Saturday mornings. The program received the 2005 Ivy Award, presented by the University in recognition of work done to improve understanding and cooperation between Yale and the New Haven community.

“Science doesn’t seem like this heavy stuff that’s so distant — it’s something we do in the kitchen or our backyards.” Ramirez said. “By opening up our doors, we build a bridge between these two different worlds, these two worlds that don’t need to be separated.”‘

Although the talks’ target age group is seventh grade and up, parents in attendance last year arrived with younger children as well, Ramirez said. The lectures are unconventional due to their interactive format, she said. The aims of the program include introducing the notion that science is part of our everyday lives while connecting Yale with the surrounding community, she said.

The students who attend Science Saturdays are at a crucial point in their educational careers, therefore the programs can be very influential, said Quentin Lindsey ’07, treasurer of Yale’s chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers.

“An early age is the best spot to get these children because after sixth grade [and] seventh grade, math and science tend to be on the low-priority list. If you don’t get them early, you don’t get them at all,” Lindsey said.

The program ran for five Saturdays last spring and will run for four Saturdays this fall. The first event of the year is scheduled to take place Oct. 8, when ecology and evolutionary biology professor Richard Prum will present “The Evolution of Birds: Why Birds are Dinosaurs.”

Last year, professors from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and the departments of psychology, ecology and evolutionary biology, astronomy, and biomedical engineering participated. This year, faculty in the physics, astronomy, and ecology and evolutionary biology departments will speak.

Yale undergraduates in the Connecticut Alpha chapter of Tau Beta Pi, an engineering honor society, as well as in the Yale NSBE chapter, provide logistical support for Science Saturdays. Ramirez said these students provide a valuable service and are better able to relate to those students in the audience.

The speakers take great care to make their topics accessible to a younger audience, while not oversimplifying the concepts, Tau Beta Pi president Noah Kalman ’06 said.

“Anyone who comes to these events is lucky to see people who are very well-known in their fields, and they really give a lecture that is specifically geared to their age level and to their knowledge level,” Kalman said. “Even I get kind of excited listening to these lectures, so I can only imagine that kids in middle and high school listening to this can get excited about it.”

Comments